Talk about the new Ertiga and the chatter usually veers towards Maruti Suzuki’s first attempt at making a seven-seat passenger vehicle — the Versa, introduced in 2001.
The chasm between the product and the promise — delivered by someone no less than a hyperstar — was too wide to be bridged. Sometimes, even Maruti Suzuki gets it wrong. It’s another thing that today, that same car in the guise of the profitable Eeco, notches between 5,000 and 6,000 units a month. When the firm gets it right, it really does that in a big way.
So: has Maruti Suzuki got it right with the new Ertiga? Will the price, set to be announced on April 12, traumatise the competition? All will be revealed. But what’s with that curious name, you ask. Well, the RIII concept that was showcased at the 2008 Auto Expo stood for ‘rows three’. Ertiga is that same ‘R’ from the RIII and ‘tiga’ is three in Indonesian. Yup, because that’s where this car’s headed next and it is a big MPV market.
In the pre-dawn darkness, the headlamps light up the cat’s eyes lining both sides of National Highway 17. It’s half past five in the morning and I am heading out of south Goa towards Karwar, about 70 km away. The Ertiga, which does not look all that big from the outside, feels enormous inside. I don’t know if it’s because of the light beige upholstery and plastic sections or the vast glass area — whatever it is, I err on the side of caution initially. Especially on the narrow NH17 — a west coast highway that twists and turns around four states and still is as narrow as a Mumbai main road for most of its length. The school marm inside the Garmin satellite navigation system authoritatively informs me that I am on New Hampshire 17. Yes, ma’am.
The NH17 has been freshly re-laid and the Ertiga does not encounter any bad patches all the way up to Karwar. Whatever speed bumps come up on the road are dismissed with authority. And it does the same with the few coconut tree branches that litter the highway.
I am in the diesel Ertiga, which Maruti officials say, is likely to account for up to 80 per cent of its overall sales. The engine is the same one that powers the diesel version of the SX4 sedan; yes, that same Fiat-derived 1,248cc inline-four that’s been breathed upon by a variable geometry turbo to deliver 89 bhp at 4,000 rpm and 20.4 kg at 1,750 rpm. Power is dispatched to the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox, which has the ratios altered for use in what’s essentially a people carrier. The net effect is that it pulls easily enough from standstill and in low speeds, and the peak torque aids usability by arriving well before the 2,000 rpm mark.
I keep the tacho needle hovering between 2,000 and 4,000 rpm and the Ertiga takes in the curves of the NH17 in its stride, slowing down or picking up pace without having to change gears too often. It is most comfortable cruising at 100 kmph in the fifth cog — which will deliver fuel consumption figures that will keep your wallet unmolested. Maruti claims a figure of 20.77 kmpl. With my kind of driving, which is euphemistically described as enthusiastic, the figures on the dash read well above 13 kpl. Great as the diesel motor may be in low and mid speeds, it runs out of steam at the top end. It’s okay in a car like this, I guess. What, however, is an issue is that there is an invasion of diesel clatter into the cabin, especially noticeable for the driver and the front passenger.
Here comes the critical bit about the Ertiga. Belonging to the Swift family, this is a front-wheel driven monocoque people carrier that offers car-like handling. What that means is that you can graduate from your Wagon R or Ritz to this one without relearning your driving skills. Until now, if you wanted a civilised seven-seater to accommodate your brood and head out, you would end up buying (or hiring) a heavy, rear-wheel driven large van with ladder-frame underpinnings. What the Ertiga does is give us Indians an easy-to-drive car (not van!) that can accommodate seven full-grown adults in comfort. In a nutshell, it’s like a very large hatchback. A Honda Jazz and then some, if you will.
The comparison is quite apt, as the glass area design mimics that of the Honda hatchback while the tail-lamps too mirror the ones on the Jazz. The rear door is the largest I have seen in a Maruti and its window is the largest one too. Front-on, it looks more like the Ritz — not surprising, when you consider the Japanese chief engineer is the same for both cars.
The Ertiga is not an unpleasant car to look at; with the plethora of Suzukis on our roads, it already looks like it is part of the landscape — though the only ones on the road were what we journalists were driving. Other than its monocoque structure and front-wheel drive layout, what makes the Ertiga approachable and car-like is its height — it is as tall as an average Indian. And more importantly, you don’t have to climb to get into it, unlike other people carriers. All buyers’ sari-clad mothers and wives are going to love it.
At the switchover point in Karwar, I shift to the petrol Ertiga. Now there is a world-first in this car — it’s the first time the new K14 motor is being used. And what a lovely engine it is — it would be terrific to see this engine in the Swift, but with a few more horses. With 94 bhp at 6,000 rpm and 13.2 kg at 4,000 rpm, the 1,373cc inline-four is close to the tempting 100 bhp mark.
In the Ertiga, again Maruti engineers have closely spaced the first few gears of the new five-speed gearbox in an attempt to compensate for the lack of torque. On the NH17, it pulled beautifully and redlined without a hitch. Compared to the stolid behaviour of the diesel, this one is a likeable ruffian. But I’ll reserve my further comments till I drive this car in city conditions and with a full load. According to Maruti it can offer 16.02 km to the litre; not if you drove it the way I did.
When it comes to chucking the Ertiga on the twists and turns of NH17 at higher than normal speeds, it didn’t lose its poise. The steering feel is pretty good and you know exactly where you are placing your front wheels. The rubber it wears is standard across all variants — 185/65 R15s. Though the tyres look small under those prominent wheel arches, they do their task well, including contributing to reduce fuel consumption. Other highlights include rear airconditioning, ABS with EBD for the entry-level LDi version (but drums and not discs at the rear), a ribbed roof for more structural integrity, and more.
Ah, but I haven’t told you about the most important feature of the Ertiga: Its insides. The front panel shares a lot with the Swift and Dzire and the rear suspension is torsion beam; it’s by using a lot of common components that Maruti engineers have given the marketing guys room to manoeuvre with the price. The 2+3+2 seating is flexible and more importantly, easy to operate. The middle row slides by 240 mm and the seats fold in various combinations. In effect, it won’t make you complain that you can’t carry your baby grand wherever you go. What is also important is the last row has been given as much importance in terms of comfort and space — it is certainly not an excuse of a seven-seater and that is a terrific attribute in a car that is pretty compact. The Ertiga is a packaging miracle.
Pricing? Well, I would expect it to be around '8.5 lakh onwards for the entry-level version, but I am willing to be disappointed if I got that figure a little high. A car like the Ertiga may have come late from Maruti Suzuki, but to repeat that cliché, better late than never.
The writer was on a media invite from Maruti Suzuki to test-drive the Ertiga